Inner West Independent

NSW COVID: Workers struggling to keep heads above water after Aquatic Centre stands down staff without pay

Marrickville's Annette Kellerman Aquatic Centre has stood down staff indefinitely due to the Sydney Lockdown. Photo: Facebook/Isaac Nellist.

By ELYSIA COOK

As Sydney was plunged into lockdown last month, Marrickville’s Annette Kellerman Aquatic Centre (AKAC) stood down its entire workforce, indefinitely and without pay.

While full-time and part-time workers have been asked to access their annual leave, many of the casual staff working at AKAC aren’t eligible for the COVID-19 Disaster Payment.

An AKAC staff member, who wished to remain anonymous, told the Independent that the only contact received regarding the decision came in the form of a generic email and text message.

Since the decision, workers have been garnering community support behind their appeals for paid pandemic leave. On July 8, several workers held an in-person demonstration outside the aquatic centre, in line with COVID-19 restrictions in place at the time.

A worker who was present at the action speculated that police who arrived to disperse the demonstration was called by the centre.

“I assume they were called by [AKAC] management, I don’t know who else would have called,” the worker said.

The next day staff were sent an email by AKAC management concerning the rally. In the email, management displayed their support for the employees to be heard, however communicated with staff that their concerns, in this case, were misplaced.

Belgravia Health and Leisure mirrored the sentiments of management.

“[We] support the rights of employees to have their say about COVID-19 lockdown financial assistance, in ways that comply with the relevant laws around public gatherings,” a Belgravia Health and Leisure spokesperson told the Independent.

An online community event was held on July 10, whereby workers called on the community to post a selfie with a sign of support. Staff initially managed to gain traction through an online petition in conjunction with the United Workers Union (UWU). It has since collected hundreds of signatures throughout the Inner West community and beyond.

On July 5, AKAC conducted a meeting to negotiate with workers. While staff were offered free fitness classes and mental health services, they were not given paid pandemic leave.

“They’re saying they can’t afford to pay it but I doubt that that’s the truth,” said one worker.

Belgravia Leisure is a multi-million dollar for-profit organisation. Company CEO Geoff Lord was featured in last year’s Australian Financial Review Rich List and has a net worth of $569 million.

Marrickville Ward Councillor Victor Macri says that the AKAC’s refusal to pay workers could have been a reaction to the Inner West Council’s move to reclaim centre management in July next year.

“Their [AKAC’s] long term plan isn’t there anymore,” said Macri.

“I question what weight that had on how they reacted.”

In a statement, Venue Manager Alex Watt said that AKAC’s response has been “consistent, lawful and, unfortunately, necessary throughout the pandemic.”

“As was shown last year, individual employers cannot be held responsible for financially supporting workers during these difficult times. That is the responsibility of government programs like JobKeeper and the current COVID-19 Disaster Payment”.

An AKAC staff member agreed that the government should also step up.

“The government and the state should be doing more, especially for those on income support payments.”

Pre-existing AKAC issues

A staff member expressed concern over the casual and seasonal nature of work at the centre.

“A lot of the people the company preys on are young students who are on Youth Allowance,” she said.

UWU National Coordinator Shara Teo agreed that insecure work in the industry was an “existing issue that has now been exacerbated” by the unfolding situation.

A previous employee of AKAC, who worked there between 2013 and 2019, told the Independent that working conditions at the centre were “dreadful”.

“In my entire six years spent there the pool was never drained and refilled, and on more than a few occasions aquatic staff got gastro.

“Not only does the company that runs it not care about its workers, but it breeds an environment that makes the workers and staff unhappy.

“When I worked there I’ve seen mice and roaches in pool equipment that’s not stored properly. I’ve found redback spiders on baby equipment only moments before using it.

“I regularly complained to my boss and also wrote evaluation forms and none of it mattered.”

Belgravia understood their employment records to be impeccable through the health and recreation space.

“Belgravia Health and Leisure has an employment record envied across the sector,” a spokesperson told the Independent.

“The company moved from employing almost entirely casual staff to over a third of the employees now categorised as full- or part-time, almost double the industry average. Our commitment to health and safety for both staff and customers is the best in the country and we are proud to stand by our OH&S record.”

Council called to ‘do more’

While the aquatic centre is owned by Inner West Council, it has been outsourced to Belgravia Leisure.

The Greens have claimed that pressure from their party resulted in the Council’s decision to return the pool to in house management next year.

Greens candidate for the Djarrawunang-Ashfield Ward Dylan Griffiths says that in the meantime, the community needs to support the campaign of the workers.

“Facilities should be run for the community, by the community,” Griffiths said.

The UWU has called on residents to write an open letter to the City of Sydney Council, requesting that they “reconsider their relationship with Belgravia”.

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